Rehabilitating Thomas

Val Webb, author of In Defence of Doubt, is currently on a tour of the UK. Here she finds a motive which might explain why John's Gospel leaves the apostle Thomas' reputation so discredited.

Rehabilitating Thomas

I have always felt sorry for Thomas. Next to Judas, he drew the worst press for asking to see the evidence. Peter denied and deserted Jesus and became head of the church. Thomas, on the other hand, acted with integrity and earned a negative label - doubting Thomas.

There is actually more going on in this story than meets the eye. Firstly, it is only in John's gospel, the one written furtherest from Jesus' death. If it had been a familiar story, it would have been in the other gospels. The story is also strategically positioned. After Thomas finally says "I believe", Jesus commends his belief but says "Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe". This statement leads straight into what scholars think was originally the end of the gospel - "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name". The message? Just as Thomas finally believed in Jesus, so should you.

While Thomas hardly gets a mention in the other gospels, there are a number of Thomas stories only in John's Gospel. Thomas insists the disciples go with Jesus into hostile Judea when Lazarus dies; (John 11: 16) and Jesus is glad Lazarus is already dead when they arrive so the disciples will believe when he is resuscitated. Later, the chief priests discuss killing Lazarus because people were believing in Jesus. When Jesus says he is going away and Thomas asks where, Jesus' response is again about believing in Jesus - "I am the way, the truth and the life; none of you comes to God except through me" (14:6). Why all these Thomas stories only in John linked with believing in Jesus?

In 1945, the Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in a collection of leather-bound books in the Coptic language. They were buried in a sealed jar and probably belonged to the nearby Pachomian monastery and buried in the fourth century when Bishop Athanasius condemned so-called heretical writings. This gospel is a collection of sayings of Jesus. We don't know who wrote this gospel, but its attachment to Thomas suggests it came from a community that emerged from Thomas' teachings. When Jesus asks in this gospel, "Who do people say I am?" Peter, Matthew and Thomas reply. Thomas says, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying who you are". Jesus then reveals special teachings to Thomas which Thomas later tells the disciples, "If I tell you even one of the things which [Jesus] told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me, and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up".

Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, an expert on this gospel, believes that John's Gospel was written about the same time, in opposition to the Gospel of Thomas. Both have similarities not in other gospels. For example, they both talk of the divine light coming into the world but, in John's gospel, this is only in Jesus - "I am the light of the world ... whosoever does not come to me walks in darkness". In the gospel of Thomas, this divine light is in all humanity, only to be discovered - "within a person of light there is light". (Pagels 68) In John's Gospel, salvation is through believing in Jesus and having life in Jesus' name, while the Gospel of Thomas emphasizes, not so much believing in Jesus, but knowing God through our divine light within - what Jesus recognized in himself.

In John's gospel, we are warned of the consequences of not believing in Jesus (3: 18). After the famous lines "For God so loved the world", we hear, "Those who ... do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God". As Elaine Pagels points out, John's Gospel is good for recruiting belief in Jesus and unifying the church around this believing in Jesus, rather than each person's search within themselves in Thomas. So, when John's Gospel tells various stories about Thomas and says that he finally believes in Jesus, this would not be lost on those following Thomas' teachings.

Thomas' influence apparently spread. He is said to have evangelized the Parthians and founded Thomas Christians in India. The negativity that later developed, despite Thomas' missionary activities, may well have been to silence Thomas’ influence and discredit his teachings once one orthodox belief was proclaimed. Rather than reading this story as a positive example of someone coming to belief, this story thus became a warning to the doubter. A later legend reinforces this. Thomas did not believe Mary was bodily assumed into heaven so she dropped her girdle on him on the way up and his eyes were opened.

The problem here is one that has plagued the church down the centuries - different beliefs and theologies. The Gospel of Thomas and similar writings claiming the Spirit speaking within was the model for Paul's churches, where honour was given to prophecy, but what happens down the line when you have different claims from the same Spirit? How do you differentiate between God's Word and human words? By the end of the second century, Bishop Ireneaus was struggling with different groups declaring secret teachings and new revelations and then separating off into smaller groups.

Irenaeus therefore declared what he saw as the correct "tradition" from the apostles and chose the four gospels as authoritative, denouncing the many others circulating. He also elevated John's gospel above the others at a time when many of his colleagues were suspicious of John’s Gospel because many of their opponents were using it. This is why the discovery of these lost texts in the twentieth century was revolutionary - the first time scholars could read and judge these condemned writings themselves, rather than only read the critiques of them from their opponents. We must free Thomas from his syndrome of doubting Thomas and with it, dismantle doubt as a negative in Christianity. Thomas' request would be praised in our scientific world today, not condemned as doubt. We must also see doubt for what it is, the discrepancy that challenges us when what we are taught does not line up with our reason or experience. Doubt is the grain of sand that irritates the oyster long enough to produce a beautiful pearl.

From a sermon Val Webb preached at St Mark's Broomhill, Sheffield on Sunday 12th April 2015

Image: Thomas the apostle, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th cen.

The list of Val's speaking engagements in the UK this April


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